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April 14, 2001

Fossmill - a town no more

Today we progress further east, down the CNR's Algonquin route to the village of Fossmill on the south east corner of Chisholm Township.

Fossmill is located 3 km directly east of where I live, and prompted an early interest in local history which led to a 228 page book, The Fossmill Story (1999), and a video, Logging by Rail in Algonquin Park (1997). I will do two columns to briefly profile Fossmill's history.

Fossmill is a contraction of "Foster's Mill," named for lumberman Bill Foster, (1860-1942) who had a remarkable career in the lumber business throughout the area. Bill Foster started in Trout Creek as a partner in the Ballantyne Lumber Company, which later joined with two other lumber companies to form the Dominion Wood and Lumber Company. 

This new company built its own railway, the Trout Creek Logging Railway, to bring out their logs from as far east as Algonquin Park to Trout Creek for sawing. Foster engineered the building of the railway and had a significant role in the development of the lumber operation there. 

This is the Bill Foster logging crew with its team of oxen at Fossmill in 1915

Foster was an ambitious entrepreneur and, at the same time as he was at Trout Creek, he acquired and logged limits in the south half of Chisholm Township with his own company. He logged in three different locations throughout the township until he set up his final mill on the CNR line in 1915 (Foster's third location was on my property and, when I bought it in 1972, there was a log building and some equipment still on site). 

J. R. Booth, with his depot at Kiosk, cut logs between Fossmill and Kiosk in the 1920s and brought some of his logs out to his railway siding across the track from Foster's Mill and on to his mill in Hull, Quebec. Many local men found work in these operations in various capacities. 

In the early 1920s while Foster's Mill was developing, the Fassett Lumber Company -on the north shore of the Ottawa River, in Quebec, between Ottawa and Montreal- was running out of logs after clear cutting for years. They also needed direct access by rail to Montreal and U.S. markets, which the CNR route provided. They sent their logging expert, Jack McGibbon, to the Fossmill area to see if it would be an appropriate place for relocation.

McGibbon recommended the site and the Fassett management negotiated with J.R. Booth for his huge dormant license south and west of Chisholm Township in Algonquin Park. The Fassett company was American while in Quebec, but Mr. Fassett died in 1924 and the company was sold to a Canadian group that kept the name and relocated it to Fossmill. 

Sydney Staniforth, a rising star in the company, was friends with the Booths, and J. R. had just died, so a good deal was arranged. 

The Fassett Lumber Company brought in many of it's former workers from Quebec and began building a complete, new, large and up-to-date mill at Fossmill in 1924. Bill Foster jobbed for Fassett briefly, sold out and moved to North Bay where he became involved with other business. 

The Fassett company built numerous houses, and a school and a church were soon built. The original railway station was replaced by a larger one as the village grew. Chisholm prospered both economically and socially because of the Fossmill operation. Most of the bush operation was handled by Quebec workers but many local farmers, in the off-season on their farms, spent their winter months in the bush.

The Fassett Lumber Company cut the usual pine left from Booth's square timber operation, but became a leader in the new hardwood industry. 

Since hardwood doesn't float, the company did what it did in Quebec- it built a logging railway to haul its logs. It never used the nearby Wasi River that had been used so effectively by J.R. Booth to take his logs to his depot at Wasi Falls on Lake Nipissing.

The Fossmill sawmill cut millions of feet of lumber-much of it custom cut for the furniture business-for years. 

The Fassett Lumber Corporation at Fossmill in 1930. The CNR is in the background and the Wasi River in the foreground.

By 1931 the Depression was devastating the lumber business, and the Fassett company was the only company still cutting in Algonquin Park. Their lumber was not selling, and the mill had no reason to cut the logs it had. Apparently, in frustration some of the workers torched the lumber yard, and 14 million feet of prime lumber went up in smoke. The mill soon began working again and survived until the summer of 1934 when the mill, like may others of that era, burned to the ground.

This is a photograph taken after the fire in Fossmill with the village on the left and boarding house on the right.

The once lively community stood still. The mill was not rebuilt, and most of the families went on relief and tried to survive as best they could. 

In 1936 Sydney Staniforth, who was a leader in Quebec and at Fossmill, started his own lumber company, the Staniforth Lumber Company, at Kiosk 20 km to the east on the CNR. He arranged again for another sweetheart deal with the J.R. Booth Company for Booth's dormant limits there. His senior staff and most of the workers came from Fossmill and many worked there until their retirement many years later. Kiosk eventually developed into the largest community in Algonquin Park history.

When Kiosk started, it had only an old Booth bunkhouse, a cookhouse, an office, and a barn, but no family accommodation. Many of the Kiosk workers walked or took the train home to Fossmill on their Sunday day off for years. Over the next decade, numerous houses were built at Kiosk, the Fossmill families relocated, and Fossmill slowly died. 

By 1950 Fossmill was a ghost town, and all of the buildings were torn down and sold for scrap. Only the hot pond and a few indentations in the ground and some overgrown roads remain.

The key to the success of the Fossmill operation was the Fossmill logging railroad, and in two weeks I will look at the ups and downs of this operation.

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